They say he died of natural causes. But I know different. I know he died of a broken heart. And how do I know this? Because I always there- mostly on the periphery- but there nonetheless.
At this point I think I was the only one.
I only think that as not many came to his funeral. Well it was a pauper’s funeral, so really only his immediate family and some concerned church and community members were aware that he’d even passed, and the funeral home was allowing “drop-ins” where an urn with his ashes and pictures of him in his youth sat on a mantle in one of the parlors.
A handful of folks stopped by. None stayed too long. The church ladies had sent some food which sat untouched on the long table.
But what to wonder about such a life? I don’t know what to make about the whole thing really.
I mean he wasn’t always what some people refer to as indigent. The headwinds at the end had been going on for a while, much longer than he knew he could take. He played out. He’d made many right decisions but mostly for the wrong reasons which over time simply led to his heart being broken.
He had some stamina though that one. More than anyone knew. He swam relentlessly against the tide, endured much, and alone. Those who did know him didn’t know about most of it. Nor did they know him at all as well as they could have. They had no idea what made him tick and didn’t seem to care much. He was always on their periphery. Isn’t it funny how people never really know each other?
It was never more true.
FIFTEEN YEARS PRIOR:
Alli got up and emptied the ashtray. By now it overflowed with cigarette butts. Whenever this crew got together and tossed back a few they chain-smoked like chimneys, while unwinding and gabbing away. “Blowing out the cobwebs” is what they called it. She emptied the butts in the garbage and grabbed the pitcher, now almost empty, and refreshed it with more ice cubes and vodka and tonic, squeezing a bunch of lime in there for good measure. The debate was getting heated at the dining room table.
It doesn’t take much.
“Well yeh you could say that Rob, but I don’t think everyone would or should agree with you, I mean really,” said Jenn, getting up and taking the pitcher from Alli’s hand. She poured refills in their glasses, with audible “clinks” of the ice, and sat back down. “I mean Rich has a totally different perspective than you, probably a more realistic one. He’s the one who put in all those years and was told not to come back. And it was a total shock for both of us, believe me. So now we have no health insurance, his pension’s in jeopardy and he has to fight for unemployment. All with no warning and no time to prepare. And working there since high school too what the hell?! Working hard, keeping his head down, and doing what we all thought we were supposed to do. Poof, DONE. Your situation’s so much different Rob. How could you really relate?” she asked wihle hawk-eyeing him.
Jenn didn’t feel out of line here at all, she was used to being able to speak her mind when the four of them were together. She and Alli had been been best friends since middle school, and although their paths went in much different directions they still were tight and comfortable with each other. Even though in the eyes of how the world measures success Alli had done much better for herself, the two never lost their connection. Jenn knew she could always be forthright and honest, and Alli was always more than eager to hear her take on things.
Rich sat there quietly, as he usually did. He wasn’t a dumb man by any means, or even meek. He was a quiet but a hard working man and thought of himself as a squirrel, waking up every day after the nut. Rich had a tendency to fold up anytime they spent time with Rob and Alli. Especially once Rob got going with his buzz. Then all his pretentious bull would start. Like today. This guy just likes to hear himself talk, Rich thought. He lit another smoke and sat back patiently, which was the only way to get along. Just let him go. Kowtow. Treat him like he knew everything. That’s what pepple like him respond to. Jenn would go on at him about it later, as she always did after one of these drunken affairs, asking how come he didn’t stand up for himself more, why did he let Rob walk all over him. Rich’s only response was “why in the world should I endure such a blowhard?”
Or something to that effect.
Rob said, “Well Rich is just gonna have to start over. There’s lots of jobs out there, people need to apply themselves to find them. They can’t expect to live off the government, right?” He looked appealingly at the women. “We’ve got enough problems. Things like that are what’s gotten our country in this mess in the first place.” Rob looked at Rich all slumped over in his chair and talked about him like he wasn’t in the room. “Besides, Rich here has a track record, a history. He’s not like most of those other lazy asses.”
Rich looked up at Rob. “Yeh but lots of folks are in the hole like I am right now Rob. People aren’t hiring out there. I mean I’m looking.” He slumped back down. “It’s nice that your practice is afloat, I mean you have a job that allows you all this.” He looked around the room and raised his arms to indicate the nice living space. “That doesn’t mean you can understand or really know what it’s like for me, what regular people like me go through.”
Rich paused, and Rob replied, laughing, “Yeh but it could happen to anyone, I mean how long has it been already? Two months, three? That’s a long time to sit around waiting for a check from the government. You could’ve had a job by now already.”
Alli picked up her glass and took a long swig. “Boys boys, come on now, this is supposed to be our fun time, you know, time to relax, not be so serious.” She said to Rob, “and I think Rich is right, you can’t relate Rob, I mean your plastic surgery biz keeps growing. So how could you relate to what the downtrodden are going through nowadays?” She looked at Rich. “Nothing personal Richie but Rob, even your clients can’t relate. People are down on their luck out there and you never see it, you can’t. There’s marching and rioting in the streets for chrissakes,” she said.
Rob sat back and put down another empty glass. He smiled at his wife. “Alli, rioting is a bit strong of a word don’t you think honey? Come on. This isn’t like back in the sixties. This isn’t real. Wall Street runs the world, in this country and the rest. Money makes the world go around.” He laughed apparently thinking this was clever. “This is a bubble, a temporary impasse. The problem is all these do-gooders and socialists who wanna suck the country dry, who expect people like me to use MY money to pay for THEIR agenda. Well it’s time to pay the piper and I’ll be damned if I’m the one who’s gonna pay.”
Rob had broken out in a sweat and was red faced, the vein in his forehead pulsed and he steamed with self-righteousness. “You know, this country was built on self-reliance, not on government dependency. That’s it. I’ve said my peace.”
“Alli’s right, let’s talk about something else,” Jenn piped up, taking out the cards and shuffling the deck.
The sunlight started to stream directly through the sheer curtains and open window, making patterns on the table. A breeze blew, disrupting the tension. Alli got up and pulled the window all the way open to let some fresh air in and let some smoke out too. You could hear the Americana outside the window, kids playing in the street, a hose on somewhere, leaves being raked, cars going by.
Rich stood up and stretched. He walked down the hall to the bathroom as the others sat in silence. Jenn shuffling the cards was the only noise, and the sound of the drinking and smoking.
Alli turned to Jenn in a quiet and confidential voice, “Well how are things going for you, I mean really? Down at the city? You’re not in any danger”
Jenn interjected, “No, not for my job I don’t think. But we do need more help. There are more people than ever coming in for food stamps and emergency assistance. There’s too much caseload that’s for sure.”
Rob looked at her impatiently and flicked his ashes in the ashtray, rolling his eyes.
Jenn continued, “We don’t have enough other workers to keep up, and there’s no chance of getting any new ones either, not now. It’s really just one of the saddest times since I’ve been there, that’s for sure. It’s turned into something where you can’t do the good that you want to do with people, we deal mostly with problems, you know the system…” trailing off. “Very sad for sure, different kinds of people coming in for help nowadays too.”
Alli looked at him with disinterest. “Well what about with Rich, how’s he holding up?”
“Oh he’s holding up best he can I guess. He fills his days. He feels quite defeated of course and mostly walks around moping. But he does try no doubt,” she said smiling.
Rich came back and they all looked up. “What?” he said with a little grin. He looked at each of them. “What?” He laughed under his breath and walked over and peeked out the window. Turning around he said, “Yeh let’s just have a good time here, okay? A good time with friends.”
“Well then sit down and deal would ya?,” Rob laughed, looking up at Rich with a grin.
“Nah that’s okay,” he said, picking up his drink. “I think I’m going to take a walk out back. It’s such a nice day out, I wanna see some of it.” He stumbled a bit through the kitchen and out the back door.
The three looked at each other and Alli, shooting Rob a look said, “ Why don’t we move this party out there?”
When they walked out back, Rich was in the back of the yard by the gazebo, taking sips of his vodka and smoking and wandering slowly around, looking deep off in thought, or off somewhere else. The day was indeed beautiful, with a deep blue sky and a bright autumn sun, a discernable briskness in the air. The three settled at the patio table, with a fresh tub of drink, a plate of nibbly things that Alli had prepared and a clean ashtray. They sat and lit up and silently watched Rich back there, puffing. Jenn said, “I think I’m gonna go check on him,” getting up with her drink.
“No Jenn, let Rob go,” said Alli, looking at Rob, eyebrows raised.
Rob sighed and muttered and got up. He refilled his booze and ambled down the steps through the yard. Rich was now sitting inside the gazebo watching Rob walking toward him, in that merry and obnoxious way of his. He didn’t move, he just watched. Rob walked up into the gazebo. “What’s up buddy, what are you doing back here?”
Rich looked at him, glazed over. “Uh, what do you mean big man huh? What do you mean tough guy, huh?”
“Whoaaa…” said Rob. “have you had too much to drink there fella?” putting his hand on his shoulder. Rich looked down, hanging his head between his knees. “Come on, let’s go back to the ladies Rich, let’s wrap things up here.”
Rob picked him up by the elbow to his feet. Rich looked up at him tearfully, but with an anger or vengefulness or maybe even a loathing, looking like he wanted to say something, but holding back, the something tangled up in his throat with the emotion stuck down there too. He started out behind the big man, down the steps back into the yard. Dragging himself along, he looked up toward the patio. The ladies looked small up there, a cloud of smoke above their heads. Rob stopped and turned around, putting his hand on Rich’s back. Rich flinched and stopped. Rob started to say something, and Rich cut in. “Why don’t you just shut your mouth for once, huh? You can’t know what it’s like for me! Don’t you ever just shut up!?” and stomped past him through the yard and back up to the ladies.
Alli and Jenn just looked up at him questioningly. Rich sat down and Jenn poured him another drink. The gabbing resumed while Rob joined them. He started in with one of his stories, about some rich old bag needing her neck stretched or something.
The sun started down, and so did they apparently. The ladies engaged the big man, who was going on and on, just giggling at him and each other, enjoying each others’ company. Rich just sat back, wondering. Wondering what was gonna give.
I stood at the mantle and thought about him silently. Rich walked a long road before this, so he certainly had no need to apologize for going belly-up. I would have a long time ago actually. I leaned against the wall mulling over the years, with the funeral directors out in the lobby directly different folks to different rooms for different deaths and the very light classical music playing in the background. Subliminal almost. Rich didn’t know from classical. Ought to be more like Led Zeppelin or something. I couldn’t help but wonder though. Even though we’d always had the most cantankerous relationship, sometimes up, sometimes down, and even out and out brawls, could I have done anything differently?
I heard some feet shuffling and turned around to and immediately recognized Jenn, walking into the room somewhat tentatively. She looked like she was wondering if this big empty room with just me in it was where she was supposed to be. I hadn’t seen her in so long I hardly recognized her at first. And from her tentativeness it was obvious she had no idea it was me. She looked great that’s for sure- just older. I immediately sensed and felt her girlishness fill the room. It was always just below the surface but always there- a long-lasting and genuine quality which wears better with the years.
“Excuse me, is this the Rich Bennett funeral?” she asked. She walked towards me and the mantle and the pictures of Rich and his ashes with her eyebrows raised and expectation. “I’m not sure if I’m in the right place,” she said, and got to the mantle and picked up one of his pictures. “Oh yes, I’m in the right place.” She gazed at the picture and rubbed her hand over his face. She looked up at me for the first time. “Oh, Rob is that you?” she laughed. “My God, I’m sorry I didn’t even realize it was you!” She looked back to the picture. “After all this time I’m suprised to see you here. I mean it’s been so long.”
It had been long. Too long. “Yeh it’s been a long time Jenn, you’re right. And you look terrific.” I kissed her cheek. “I’m so sorry about this. About Rich. It’s dreadful and sad.”
“Had you kept in touch with him? I’d be surprised. And how’s Alli, where is she?”
“Alli’s fine, she would’ve been here.”
“I didn’t realize you and she kept in touch with him. I hadn’t even talked to him in so many years. Not since back then, ya know. Last I heard he still wasn’t working and never got himself back to where he was. Or something.” She looked at the floor sullenly. “how was he, I mean what happened with him?”
“Yeh I’d kept in touch.”
“How was he?”
“Well, I really could say it’s the God’s honest truth that he was never good again. He didn’t see many people the last couple of years, what with not being able to travel like he used to. And not many came to him. Until he hardly saw really anyone. ”
Jenn looked at me, questions behind her eyes. You could see her playing back the years, thinking back. “Never good again, huh?”
“He was alone Jenn. And he’d gotten real sick.”
“Oh.” She started to sniffle that slowly increased to a quiet but animallike bawl. “I couldn’t have done the wrong thing, could I Rich? I mean we tried, I tried. We never got anywhere. And he tried too, don’t get me wrong. I just couldn’t deal with it, I’ll admit. It was all just too much. Did I do the wrong thing?”
Thoughts and questions she had all the right to ponder. “I don’t know Jenn. Who knows? He just played out, ya know?” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Last time I saw him he was in good spirits, I assure you. He had no ill will.”
“Yes that sounds like him.”
She let out a small smile at the thought and took a kleenex from her purse and dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. She looked around the room. “Rob, Where is everyone?”
“What do you mean everyone Jenn, we’re it.”